Imagine a tale made out of this: a fitness instructor-cum-contract killer who is paid by a wealthy dowager to dispatch men who have hurt women “to another world” with a quick prick of an ice pick in the neck, and teams up with a policewoman to scour singles bars for (preferably balding) businessmen for raunchy one-night stands. A maths teacher-cum-budding novelist who is enlisted to ghost-write a story by a 17-year-old escapee from a secretive sect in the mountains, only to find himself not just drawn into a dangerous plot, but also playing an active part in creating a parallel world, in which there are two moons and everything is subtly different. A mysterious cult leader shrouded in darkness. A “tenacious bug” of an investigator with an abnormally large and misshapen head. And the Little People, who emerge at night through channels they open up from another dimension, to interfere with life on Earth.
You might readily conclude that you’ve come across some potboiler full of sex, violence and way-out fantasy. And there is, of course, no small element of that in Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s huge novel 1Q84, an epic that runs to more than 900 pages in the eagerly awaited English translation. First published in Japan in 2009-10 in three separate parts after much secrecy, intended to drum up anticipation, 1Q84 is now brought out in Britain in two volumes. Books 1 and 2, lucidly translated by Jay Rubin, are bound as one, while the separate Book 3 is just as seamlessly rendered into English by Philip Gabriel, publishers Harvill Secker taking the unusual measure of using two translators to speed up the process. No effort has been spared in promoting it — it comes complete with a countdown “until the world changes” on its publication website and a movie-style trailer.
1Q84 is certainly an engrossing, otherworldly mystery to lose yourself in, with a good deal of humour and a considerable thriller-esque, page-turning pull — especially in Book 2, when many key scenes occur and things get a notch further removed from reality. Reading it is an intense and addictive experience, and this is no mean feat at all. However, it is also far more than that — it’s a highly ambitious work, which raises more questions than it resolves in its intricate plot. A more optimistic take on George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, kicking off in April that year just like the latter’s dystopia, it is concerned with postmodern issues such as the rewriting of the past and the slippery dividing line between fact and fiction, exploring just how uncertain our grasp of reality can be, especially as the world we were born into morphs into somewhere quite different.
For the main characters, soon “things are not what they seem” as “the world switched tracks” from 1984 into 1Q84, where “Q is for ‘question mark’. A world that bears a question” (and pronounced the same as the Japanese number 9, a bit of clever word play). In its scope and complexity, 1Q84 is the complete opposite of its predecessor, Murakami’s atmospheric but slight After Dark (published in Britain in 2007), and more in line with his earlier The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), a far broader, historically rich canvas which also explored a series of bizarre events.
The core story is simple enough. Aomame (the assassin) and Tengo (the ghostwriter), both lonely outsiders from damaged backgrounds who are “united by deep wounds to the heart, each bearing some undefined absence”, are subconsciously searching for each other, ever since they experienced a moment of connection at school when they were ten years old. Their parallel, carefully interlinked stories, set in Tokyo, unfold in alternate chapters, with the equally outcast investigator Ushikawa introduced into the narrative mix in Book 3. This structure makes for some occasionally wearying repetitiveness, with events often described two or three times, but mostly it serves to build up the momentum, slowly and hypnotically nudging the separated lovers — if you can call them that — closer to each other in a world that “has a serious shortage of both logic and kindness”.
Thus, through the slow-moving, labyrinthine plot and the two parallel narratives, we are made to live through just how vast “the distance that separates one person’s heart from another’s” can be, even though the central message resounds loud and clear — love conquers all. For despite Aomame’s steely alienation, as she takes one life after another, at her core “there is not nothing”, just as Tengo knew that “he would find the path he needed to take — as long as he did not forget this warmth, as long as he did not lose this feeling in his heart”. This is fantasy too, you might say, and of course it is, but it provides a vital counterpoint to the bleakness of much of the novel.
Over the years there has been a lot of debate in Japan and beyond about Murakami’s cult status as a writer — is this serious literature or pop fiction? It’s not really a question that needs asking any more, although there are definitely a few too many references to tight skirts, pert breasts and Charles Jourdan high heels, which, along with a heroine who in her superwomanly fitness could have stepped out of a comic, make the shallowness alarm bells ring. But there are also many much richer seams, such as the all-pervading beauty of the pared-down language, the well-chosen imagery and the deep sense of loss, as well as the memorable portrayal of flawed characters such as Tengo’s father and his gradual slipping away from life, his death like a “windless day at the end of autumn, when a single leaf falls from a tree”.
And this is where Murakami’s greatness lies — no matter how violent and fantastic his plots, the underlying themes circle around our fundamental dilemmas, in this case probing not just our quest for love in its full urgency, but exploring just how helpless we are when it comes to knowing anything for sure about the world we live in, it being “an endless battle of contrasting memories”. There is also a real engagement with topics such as the treatment of Koreans on Sakhalin Island at the end of World War II, the consequences of domestic violence and the brain-washing power of cults, “foot-binding for the brain” (a subject Murakami also explored in Underground, his collection of interviews with the victims and perpetrators of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995).
So for all its fantasy surface and sexy detail, this is a work of considerable and haunting complexity, which is likely to resonate a long time after one has stopped turning its numerous pages-and don’t expect any easy solutions to the existential conundrums raised. As Murakami put it in an interview with John Wray in the Paris Review, back in 2004: “I always hope to position myself away from so-called conclusions. I would like to leave everything wide open to all the possibilities in the world.”